Founding Member of the Royal Society of London

JOHN EVELYN (1620-1706) PROTO-SCIENTIST
By Jane Carruthers FRSSAf

The monumental diary of John Evelyn is one of the masterpieces of English literature and its testimony of an educated, cultivated and thoughtful life in 17th century London is of endless interest and fascination to scholars in many disciplines. Evelyn’s scientific output is renowned. Among foresters in particular he holds a special place. His 1664 book Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions (in later editions spelt Silva) is one of the most influential texts on forestry ever published and is frequently referred to even in many current publications. So too is his work on air pollution (for which London was notorious until well into the 20th century) entitled Fumifugium: Or the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated,

Together with Some Remedies Humbly Proposed (1661). His was the first publication to deal with that plague of urbanisation, explaining the problem and suggesting a solution. Moreover, his gardening manual, Kalendarium Hortense: Or the Gard’ners Almanack, Directing what he is to do Monthly Throughout the Year’ (1664), has been the model for all books on gardening thenceforth. Not only do these particular works reward readers to this day but Evelyn is held by many to have been the first conservationist. In recently re-reading The Diary of John Evelyn I was struck anew by his remarkable life and scientific achievements and his close record of his era.

Portrait of John Evelyn by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1687

            The internet is replete with information on John Evelyn and many of his papers and books are freely available online. Because details of his life and accomplishments are readily accessible only a very brief account follows. Born on 31 October 1620 to a relatively wealthy and well connected family that had made a fortune in gunpowder production, Evelyn had an exceptionally long life for that time, dying on 27 February 1706. His journal, written at leisure later in his life and first published in 1818, is a daily account (taken from his contemporary notes) of his career, his family, his relationship with colleagues, his religious beliefs and his personal interests from 1641 to 1697. An intimate account, he probably never intended it for publication. Evelyn was influential in many areas of life. In his employment, as His Majesty’s Commissioner for the buildings and streets of London, he was in charge of many public works (including the rebuilding of St Paul’s cathedral after the fire) and also of other responsibilities such as managing the Dutch prisoners in London.

            An arresting writer, Evelyn’s account of the 1666 great fire of London and his description of the outbreaks of plague in his era make distressing reading.  On the day of the fire, he wrote, ‘… God grant mine eyes may never behold the like, who now saw above ten thousand houses all in one flame, the noise & crackling & thunder of the impetuous flames, the shrieking of Women & children, the hurry of people, the fall of towers, houses & churches was like an hideous storme, & the air all about so hot and inflamed that at the last one was not able to approach it … Thus I left it this afternoon burning, a resemblance of Sodome, or the last day.’  In respect of the plague, he recorded ‘Cofines exposed in the streetes & the streete thin of people, the shops shut up, & all in mournefull silence, as not knowing whose turne might be next.’

            Evelyn and his friends, colleagues and acquaintances were important and powerful people who were deeply involved in politics, society, the military, literature and, particularly, in intellectual curiosity. In Evelyn’s day there was no such word, or profession, as ‘science’ or ‘scientist’. Scientist was coined in 1833 by William Whewell FRS, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and like Evelyn, a polymath. In Evelyn’s time scientifically curious people referred to themselves as ‘philosophers’, hence journal titles such as Philosophical Transactions. The importance of John Evelyn for this fragment of history is that he was among the group who founded the Royal Society of London in 1660 and his diary provides contemporary glimpses of the nature of scientific thinking at that time. His perspective is informal and personal and thus avoids the valorising and exaggerated praise that sometimes characterise later

 

accounts of organisations that have subsequently become influential and important. From the diary we can also surmise that the Royal Society meetings were a welcome respite from his onerous public duties and family responsibilities.

            Evelyn’s diary does not describe the initial gathering of the group forming the Philosophic Society, later named the Royal Society (see Fragment of History http://www.royalsocietysa.org.za/?page_id=1278), but takes up the story on 13 January 1661 when, having been nominated by the King, Charles II (newly restored to the throne), he was elected to the Council of the Philosophic Society at a meeting at Gresham College ‘where there was an assembly of divers learned gentlemen … It being the first meeting since the return of his Majesty in London, but begun some years before at Oxford and interruptedly here in London during the Rebellion …’. The following week was a busy time for the Society. On 16 January the Torricellian experiment was examined, Evelyn himself presented his ‘Circle of Mechanical Trades’ and he was encouraged by his colleagues to publish what he had written on chalcography. A week later (23 January) the Society discussed the terrella that had been sent by the King to the group for inspection. A terrella was a small magnetised model ball of the earth, probably invented by William Gilbert, as a device to simulate the earth’s magnetosphere. A sub-committee (as we would call it today) which Evelyn chaired was tasked with improving the English language.

            The King took an active interest in the incipient Royal Society, regularly sending specimens for professional comment including a very small piece of glass that was apparently unbreakable when hit by a hammer but that crumbled to dust when touched gently at a particular spot. Evelyn recorded, rather obsequiously (it was the King,

after all) that ‘The reason was considered, but so many objections made, as was hard to solve’. Other matters that came before the Society included a demonstration of Robert Hooke’s conical pendulum,  a communication read out from Surinam that may well refer to an electric eel, a fish toxin made from a particular plant, some unusual hairs from the head of a corpse in Germany, a viper, a bird of paradise, military inventions, the dissection of a chameleon, experiments with a vacuum, recording a comet, a discourse on wool, agricultural improvement and many other fascinating glimpses into what intrigued the intellectual elite of the 17th century English-speaking world.

            The sense of wonder that pervades the entries about the Royal Society in this diary is to be savoured and treasured as a contrast to the attitude of hubris that so often accompanies modern scientific work. I recalled what Sharon Kingsland had written about Evelyn Hutchinson, a similar polymath (although also expert), ‘Science for Hutchinson was far more than a way of investigating nature: it was a means of enlightenment that, like art, could produce feelings of exaltation that ennobled the human spirit’.

 

References:
De Beer, E.S., ed., The Diary of John Evelyn. London: Oxford University Press, 1959.
Kingsland, S.E., ‘The beauty of the world: Evelyn Hutchinson’s vision of science’, in Skelly, D.K., Post, D.M. and Smith, M.D. (Eds.), The Art of Ecology: Writings of G. Evelyn Hutchinson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010, pp.1-9.